Italy Roundtable: Becoming a Regular


Many moons ago, I got it into my head that going to the same place twice during a stay in that city or town made me a “regular.” The first time I remember thinking this was in Prague in 1992, when my cousin and I hit the same coffee shop two mornings in a row. No one recognized us. It wasn’t that sort of coffee shop. But somehow, simply walking into the same place to get my coffee two days in a row, in a city I would soon leave and to which I would not return for more than a decade, made me a regular in my mind.

Years later, during a winter trip to Venice, I finally got an impression of what “being a regular” would actually feel like. I wrote about the experience as a journal entry back then, and am revisiting it now for this month’s Italy Roundtable topic of MY LOCAL. I’ve not set foot in this place since the trip I’m remembering here, but I still recall it fondly. Maybe you’ll soon see why.

Quiet Venice || creative commons photo by Francesca Cappa

Quiet Venice || creative commons photo by Francesca Cappa

It was cold, foggy, and damp in Venice, as it often is in February, and the city was taking a bit of a breather before the chaos of Carnevale set in. A few of the places I had intended to try for dinner were still closed, so when I walked into the restaurant it was because I was hungry and out of options. I didn’t exactly have high hopes.

The small dining room was relatively quiet, and I settled into my table for one with a book and my journal. I ordered dinner, which was delicious, and eventually struck up a conversation with my server, Stefano. I suppose a woman dining alone in Italy is often going to attract attention, and in Venice – a city known for its romantic atmosphere – I must have looked especially odd.

I gave him my business card to justify my solo status – a travel writer on a research trip, okay, that made sense – and soon found my small table covered with tiny plates of things Stefano and the kitchen thought I should have ordered. I became Signorina Jessica. The slow night allowed the staff to chat, to offer tips. I noticed a couple at another table – Germans, I think – who had clearly been in before, and to whom several little free samples also made their way from the kitchen. Stefano went over to talk to them repeatedly, like they were old friends.

Maybe they were. Maybe they weren’t. Maybe the staff was just flirting with me, because they were Italian men and I was a woman alone. Maybe when you’re traveling alone, doing research on hotels and restaurants and museums, you don’t much care why someone is being kind.

I left that night in high spirits, overly stuffed and with not as much written down in my notebook as I’d intended to write.

And of course I went back for dinner the next night.

Business was a bit more brisk on my second visit. Stefano was still working, and they recognized me with a welcoming “Signorina Jessica” as I walked in. I let Stefano order for me. Soon after I sat down with my book – it was busier, after all, and the staff had their hands full – I gave up reading because two locals walked in. Staff hollered, “Il Sindaco!” – meaning “the mayor” – though I never did find out who they were talking about. (And I always assumed that was just a nickname, not that it was the actual mayor of Venice, but who knows?) Stefano seated them at the table beside mine, and then introduced us. In Italian, he told them to behave themselves. In English, he leaned toward me and said, “But we can talk about them, because I don’t think they speak English.”

Claudio, Giorgio, and I talked for the remainder of the evening. We talked about music, travel, Italian culture, and even politics. It was all in Italian – I never did find out if they spoke any English – and it was glorious.

It was 10:30 or 11 when the restaurant staff sat down to finally eat their dinner, when most of the dining room had cleared out. I waited, reading my book, as the last of the diners finished their meals, too. We all left at once, then, the last diners and the staff, the latter pulling the metal gates down over the entrance after they exited.

Stefano offered to walk me back to my hotel. He said he didn’t want me to fall into a canal.

On a normal night, I would have politely refused. On that night – after drinking my own wine and some of Claudio and Giorgio’s wine (they insisted) and a sample of Sambuca and a small glass of Scotch – I accepted.

Stefano, a native Venetian, knew the city intimately. I, a hopeless tourist who actually tries to get lost in Venice, had been relying on a detailed map I’d drawn to get to the restaurant in the first place. The fog had settled into the city, lying on the dark streets so we could barely see a few feet in front of us, and I realized that falling into a canal wasn’t exactly a far-fetched risk. Venice was almost entirely empty by then, and the air was close.

It’s times like that when I love Venice most, and I was thoroughly enjoying the moment.

Stefano led me through the dark city streets, not the way I’d come, and so it was without warning that we turned a corner – and suddenly there was St. Mark’s Basilica right in front of me.

I gasped. I actually gasped.

I adore St. Mark’s beyond all other churches in the world, so to see it again as if it was the first time I’d ever seen it – an experience you don’t usually get twice – well, that was pure magic, and such a beautiful gift.

The cold of the fog was starting to cut through the layers of alcohol, I was tired, and I had to catch an early train, so we didn’t linger in the square long. Stefano walked me the remaining few streets to my hotel’s front door, where he kissed me on both cheeks and made me promise to come back to the restaurant on my next Venice trip.

I have, as I said at the outset, never been back to the restaurant.

I don’t visit Venice often enough to maintain my status as “Signorina Jessica,” someone who is hailed when entering like “Il Sindaco.” Returning would have put me back at square one, or – worse – below that, if I didn’t recognize anyone working there. No, instead of pretending that it was a long-term thing, I think what was important to me was that for that trip – for those two days – I was a regular. I knew it wouldn’t last. It couldn’t. In that moment, though, I knew what it felt like to be recognized in a foreign land when you walk through the door of a restaurant. And that was enough.

I’ll just need to find a new local on my next trip.

Other Voices at the Italy Roundtable

What local are my cohorts sharing? Click along with me through to the following links to read each of their posts – and please leave comments, share them with your friends, and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

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6 responses to “Italy Roundtable: Becoming a Regular”

  1. Leslie says:

    Enjoyed your blog re:Regular. I could so relate with you. Thank you for your words and feelings!

  2. Karen says:

    Beautifully written story! You put me in the scene right along side of you.

  3. bonnie melielo says:

    There is absolutely nothing that compares to the feeling of being known in a “foreign land”. You go from being a tourist to being a visitor in the blink of an eye and then, shortly after, to being considered a friend. We return to the same restaurants, bars, hotels, etc. year after year and feel so much at home. Really, I feel like we have created a second life for ourselves in Italy.

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